State legislators and public health advocates are demanding answers from the LePage administration about why it discontinued the Healthy Maine Partnerships program and how it plans to transition to a more centralized approach to health education.

The 27 agencies that were part of the Healthy Maine Partnerships Coalition had their contracts terminated as of Friday. They were told that they could no longer use the Healthy Maine Partnership’s name and that five agencies will subcontract to local agencies for public health education.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday that the changes do not represent a reduction in health prevention services or funding. She did not provide an explanation for why the partnership’s name could no longer be used.

State officials said the new, more centralized approach will be an improvement over the localized organization of Healthy Maine Partnerships, a wide-ranging, grassroots effort that has worked to prevent obesity, smoking and substance abuse and promote healthy eating.

Advocates, however, argued that the local partnerships were effective.

Susan Deschene, senior manager for Aroostook Community Action Program, which discontinued its Healthy Aroostook partnership on Friday after losing $236,000 in state funding, said three employees were laid off, but she hopes that when the program is restructured the employees can return in similar roles.

“The partnerships as we’ve known them are gone,” she said.

Becky Smith, Maine’s director of government relations for the American Heart Association, said there’s been little communication from DHHS about the changes, and what the prevention services will look like in future years is unknown.

“Nobody knows quite yet. We know there’s going to be an interruption,” said Smith, who noted that it’s puzzling to see the Healthy Maine Partnerships name go away after more than 15 years of branding in communities across the state.

Joanne Joy, of the Maine Network of Healthy Communities, which advocates for Healthy Maine Partnerships, said that because the partnerships were so local, they did a great job of identifying the needs in each community. She’s not sure a more centralized approach as outlined by DHHS will be as effective.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook and co-chair of the Legislature’s health and human services committee, said the LePage administration has not been transparent with its public health efforts.

“We keep asking questions and not getting any answers,” Gattine said. “Nobody really knows what their plan is for providing public health.”

DHHS issued a letter Sept. 7 to agencies that were part of Healthy Maine Partnerships that said the department and the Maine CDC “are retiring the Healthy Maine Partnership brand at the end of the current grant cycle.”

Healthy Maine Partnerships, which started in 2001, was funded with $4.7 million per year in tobacco settlement money. The settlement money – about $50 million a year – is deposited into the Fund for a Healthy Maine and pays for a number of prevention and tobacco cessation efforts and other health initiatives, including the partnerships.

The state’s reorganization of Healthy Maine Partnerships dollars streamlines the state’s role in the effort, state officials said.

Instead of contracting with 27 groups, the state now contracts with four agencies that will subcontract to local agencies for public health education. The administration is in the process of awarding a bid for a fifth contractor to handle communications surrounding the initiatives.

Many of the subcontracts haven’t been signed yet. The new state contracts started Monday with MaineHealth, Opportunity Alliance, Let’s Go and the University of New England. The change has resulted in several layoffs or reduced hours during the transition, public health advocates said.

MaineHealth landed a $2.3 million contract for tobacco prevention; the University of New England secured a $2.5 million contract for substance abuse prevention; “Let’s Go,” a nonprofit that promotes healthy school lunches and exercise, won a $1.6 million obesity prevention contract; and the Opportunity Alliance in South Portland got a $1.2 million contract for youth empowerment.

In March, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the state needed to change how it handles public health programs because of a “need to approach the work differently in order to adapt to the ever-changing public health landscape.” Mayhew said that a more centralized organization – in contrast to the dispersed, localized approach of Healthy Maine Partnerships – would give the state the ability to measure data and evaluate outcomes.

The Fund for a Healthy Maine was the subject of a 2015 political fight between the LePage administration and public health advocates after the administration proposed diverting $10 million from the fund to other areas of the state health budget. But after an outcry from public health advocates objecting to the cutbacks, the Legislature did not approve LePage’s proposal.

 


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